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Worth It or Not Worth It: Joining a CSA

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As spring produce starts to appear at the markets, we thought it high time to revisit this vintage Hotline question: Is a CSA right for you?

The First Salad of Spring
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The First Salad of Spring

For starters, if you aren't familiar with the term, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture: It's a way for farmers to directly market their produce to you, the consumer. Food52er mklug loved the idea of a CSA, but had to weigh some practical considerations: namely, a 70-mile round-trip journey to pick up her share every Saturday.

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You all were quick to jump into the discussion, noting some other drawbacks—and highlighting some serious benefits, too.

Let's start with the good...

High-Quality Produce

The quality of the contents—be it produce, eggs, meat, or dairy—was not a point of debate among Hotline contributors; all agreed the haul was fantastic. Drbabs described her share as a "special gift."

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Expanded Cooking Horizons

When you join a CSA, you may have some control over what you receive, but not much, so the contents are often surprising. You may wind up with more garlic scapes than you've ever seen in your life one week, a full bushel of peaches the next. RobertaJ described cooking with her CSA produce as an "exercise in creativity." Fiveandspice put it well:

If you're up for having to spontaneously create things from the variety of produce that gets handed to you, then it's a really fun adventure and can help you learn a lot about new kinds of vegetables or even force you to try new things with familiar ones.

Relationships with Farmers

Usuba dashi emphasized the bonds you can establish with local farmers—especially if you volunteer to participate at the farm. A little community has formed around fiveandspice's CSA, and farmers regularly invite participants out to the farms to celebrate different harvests.

What We've Made with Our CSA (So Far)
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What We've Made with Our CSA (So Far)

And a few potential drawbacks:

Too Much of a Good Thing

For Susan G's household of 2, even a half share proved too much food to get through each week. She ultimately decided the farmers market was a better way for her to "thank a farmer" on her own terms.

Being Green

While supporting local farmers is ostensibly a good thing for the planet, Allie pointed out that in mklug's case, a weekly 70-mile drive might actually negate the potential benefits.

Time (and Money)

Apart from those environmental considerations, a two-hour investment each week—and on a Saturday, no less—might be more trouble than it's worth. As betteirene said, "cancel three times and those beautiful tomatoes in August could end up costing $8 a pound or more."

10 of the Best Farmers Market Tips We Learned from Cookbooks
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10 of the Best Farmers Market Tips We Learned from Cookbooks

In the end, of course, the decision to join a CSA is a highly personal one, and will be determined by factors unique to each person's situation. For mklug's case, Nora suggested enlisting some friends to split the CSA, which would mean less driving (and more manageable amounts of produce, if that's a concern).

Between shopping at farmers markets and buying local produce, meat, and dairy at the grocery store, there are other ways to support local farmers even if a CSA isn't right for you.

Are you a member of a CSA? Why does—or doesn't—it work for you? Tell us in the comments!

Tags: csa, farmers markets, hotline, your burning questions